I had a business appointment in the Crow Indian territory, but there were a few hours to spare before that meeting and nowhere to go for miles in any direction.
There was nowhere to visit other than the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Monument.
I usually have the inclination to see a variety of interesting places; not only those of exceptional natural beauty, but also those of historical significance. But it's very rare for me to stop at any sites that commemorate military campaigns. Why? You will understand by the time you reach the end of this essay.
Still, with time to kill I stopped at the Little Big Horn visitor center to learn more about the place. In the past I had driven past the Monument with my family, and so the basic facts were known to me. But this was the first time I actually entered this former western frontier battlefield.
Gentle hills were covered with prairie-type vegetation, visible from three sides, all the way to the horizon. On the west, the Big Horn Mountains were still covered with snow, as they are until early summer in this part of the mountain chain.
Paved paths led me to the spot where a major clash took place; where many of the bodies of killed American soldiers were found. Hills were spotted with white marble tablets that looked like small tombstones. From the information display I learned that the stones indicate the places where the slaughtered bodies had lain, stripped of all valuables, until an additional regiment of the army arrived. The deceased bodies were then collected and laid to rest in a nearby cemetery, which was also used later for the slain soldiers of other U.S wars.
Walking the paths between the white marble stones, from time to time I stopped to read the names and ages of the soldiers. What struck me was not the young age of many of the soldiers, for that is precisely the age group that is used on battlefields all over the world. What did surprise me to learn, was that more than 40% of the slaughtered soldiers were not born Americans.
That was not, however, the case of their commander Colonel George Armstrong Custer. Custer was of German and perhaps Irish ancestry, but he was born in Ohio. Colonel Custer was a hero of the Civil War, known to many as the ‘Boy General’ who earned his celebrity status in his early twenties.
Dressed in a custom-ordered, distinguished uniform, he often engaged in the most dangerous acts, thus gaining the respect of other soldiers through his fearless and aggressive pursuit of enemies. He killed those enemies with visible satisfaction.
In fact, this sadist actually wrote in a letter that while he understands that Civil War doesn’t serve his country well, he wishes it would never end.
Soon after the Civil War did end, the American army struggled with a surplus in the military industry, as many governments do after war. One of the enemies which the army was next deployed to fight emerged in the western territories of what is today the state of Utah: the Mormon Church. But that was not where Colonel Custer was sent.
After pursuing different lines of fame and business, including an attempt to fight for the army of Benito Juarez in Mexico, Custer found new fields upon which to discharge his natural drives – the American Indian Wars.
As the American frontier was moving westward, the interests of indigenous populations were challenged. Sioux or Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne Native American nations were on the frontlines of American progress.
As noted shortly in Wikipedia:
“By the time of Custer's expedition to the Black Hills in 1874, the level of conflict and tension between the U.S. and many of the Plains Indians tribes (including the Lakota, Sioux and Cheyenne) had become exceedingly high. Americans continually broke treaty agreements and advanced further westward, resulting in violence and acts of depredation by both sides. To take possession of the
Black Hills (and
thus the gold deposits), and to stop Indian attacks, the decided to
corral all remaining free Plains Indians. The
Grant government set a deadline of January 31, 1876 for all
Lakota and Arapaho wintering in the "unseeded territory" to report to
their designated agencies (reservations) or be considered "hostile." U.S.
The problem was that Cheyenne Indians never signed any treaty with the American Government, as was also the case with many other tribes.
To get a better picture of the situation, imagine that someone breaks into your home and takes room after room into his possession. As proof of his right to do so, he presents you with some document which he calls, for example, ‘Manifest Destiny.’ He genuinely believes that he has the G-d-given right to possess and manage your house.
After pushing you down to the basement, he comes to you with a ‘peace’ treaty that says you can now occupy a few rooms in the basement, as long as you comply with certain rules.
Of course, you don’t know what he is talking about because you still remember the comfort and coziness of the couch in your living room. So you refuse to sign any treaty. Rightly, you feel that this may not be the end of this intruder's demands.
And that's exactly what happens next.
The invader discovers that the main water valve is in the room where you put your air mattress, as you are trying to somehow organize your life. Now he wants you out of the room because his strategic interests must be protected.
In his generosity he shows you the closet under the steps, which he is ready to grant you under the terms of a new ‘peace’ treaty.
That is precisely what happened with Lakota, Arapaho, Cheyenne and many other American nations.
They refused to go to the reservations that were designated for them.
If you would see the Black Hills in South Dakota and what kind of wasteland surrounds this most beautiful region of the country, you would understand why they did not want to leave the area.
Whatever was not wasteland was prairie, where bison once roamed. But the white man almost annihilated the bison. For Plain Indians, countless herds of Bison were a source of food, clothing, building materials and tools. They were an essential element to their survival. That element was destroyed precisely in order to cut them off from the source of their livelihood. Bands of settlers rode their horses, killing as many bison as possible without taking anything from the animals. Their goal was solely to deprive the Indians. And it all happened with the quiet acceptance of the government.
In the spring of 1876, the American Government deployed three different units of its army to bring the Indians to ‘order’ by enclosing them in reservations.
One of the groups was led by the commander of the 7th cavalry regiment – Colonel George Armstrong Custer.
Custer was informed about an Indian village in nearby Little Big Horn River in today’s Montana. He decided to engage them in battle, even though the village was estimated as being populated by as many as eight thousand people, at least 1500 to 1800 of them warriors protecting their families and possessions.
Custer didn’t have that number of people with him. If he would have waited for two more American army units, their numbers and their technological superiority in the profession of killing people would have given him certain victory. But this war celebrity had already been lauded in the books and the national press, and he didn’t want to share the fame with others. He decided to engage in battle with the Indians on his own. After all, his middle name was Armstrong… and that’s probably how he saw himself.
He divided his unit into three smaller groups, but I will not share any further details of what happened after that, because describing the loss of human life causes me pain.
Between June 25 and 26 of 1876, most of his soldiers were killed - including their commander.
It was only a temporarily successful defense for the 8000 souls who tried to avoid an encounter with people who invaded their land from beyond the great sea – the Atlantic Ocean. The other two units of the American army arrived shortly thereafter and defeated the Indian tribes, forcing them into reservations upon which they are still living today.
If you would take a road trip through the states where the story described above happened - Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming - you would probably be as surprised as many of the east coasters are who visit the western States. You would find that this land is empty; there are almost no people living there, and no major industry. Miles of land are not even cultivated. Here and there, some cows wander on the horizon, but otherwise the land is almost barren.
What was the urgency, you may ask, to take this land almost 150 years ago, if it is still uninhabited and almost unused? If the indigenous population was suppressed and their numbers weren't increasing; if the Europeans weren't arriving in big numbers; what was the land grab for? Coal in Wyoming was not yet discovered, neither was oil in Dakota and Montana. Why did white American men consider it so imperative to enclose the nomadic tribes in the reservations? Was it only about the gold in the Black Hills?
Walking among those white marble matzevos I noticed commemoration stones that were the same size but a different color. These were sparsely dotting the prairie. I went closer to them to read their inscriptions.
Those stone were not as weathered as the white ones, indicating that those brown stones were put on the battlefield much later than the white ones. The names inscribed on the newer stones were those of the Lakota, Arapaho and Cheyenne warriors.
At some moment it was recognized by descendents of European immigrants that not only were those Indians defending their families and their livelihoods, but they displayed military valor and bravery.
It struck me because this mindset is exactly the same approach of the culture in which I was raised: civilians can be mass murdered, but soldiers are interned in POW camps and officers are treated with honors, including allowing them to carry unloaded weapons. Military might is admired.
It struck me also because I clearly remember the words of my beloved rabbi, Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch:
“Philistia feared, Edom remained stunned, Moab trembled, Canaan was quite dumbfounded; it was only Amalek, completely unprovoked, who hurried out of his way to gain renown and take up arms against the Force which had laid even a Pharaoh low. He alone lo ire Elokim, did not fear G-d.
He alone was the heir of that spirit which chose the sword as his lot, who sought to realize the seeking renown in laurels of blood and the naseh luni sheim with which old Nimrod started the history of the world to the destruction of the happiness of nations and men. This seeking renown by the force of arms is the first and last enemy of the happiness of mankind and of the Kingdom of G-d on earth.
The policy of the Pharaohs — using force ruthlessly to further their own interests, certainly had an interest in keeping up slavery, but that policy can even be a friend of freedom, when freedom serves its interests. But Amalek's renown-seeking sword knows no rest so long as one single pulse beats in freedom, and pays no homage to it. So long as any modest, quiet happiness exists which does not tremble before its might.
Before similar forces, armed to the teeth like himself, Amalek does not yield, but rather sees in such measures a sign of recognition and fear of his sword. He wages war against them, of course, but honors opponents who acknowledge him and have similar principles to his own.
he sees an object of mortal hate and complete disdain, where one dares to think
the sword is dispensable, where one dares to trust in spiritual moral powers,
powers of which the sword has no idea, and which are beyond its reach.
In the representative of the idea of the greatness which Man can attain by Peace, Amalek sees the utter scorn of all his principles, sees in it his one real enemy, and senses somehow his own ultimate collapse.”
When I was reading those words of Rav Hirsch for the first time, I have to admit, tears rolled down my cheeks. I cried with the tears of exaltation, for one more time I saw that the idea of aversion to violence is not only my own conviction.
Nonviolence is not only hinted at in some cryptic message of our father Yitzchok that “Hakol kol Yaakov veyidaim yadey Eisav” – The voice is the voice of Yaakov but the hands are the hands of Eisav. Our sages of blessed memory explained those words multiple times as an obligation imposed on Yaakov and his descendent not to engage in violence and even avoid situations where self-defense must be used.
There are other places in Chumash where we find similar messages. For example, the words of Chazal on the ‘blessing’ of Yaakov to his sons Shimon veLayvi, in which weapons are called ‘stolen devices’. Stolen because they belong to uncle Eisav and his descendants, but not to bnei Yaakov, not to Yisrael.
I exulted to read the words of Rav Hirsch. He was one of the most prominent leaders of our people, having a unique clarity and understanding of the Jewish mission and role in history. And he explained this fundamental truth in a most lucid manner.
Rav Hirsch didn’t stop only by explaining the historical and political reality which started with Nimrod, continued with Eisav and then with his archetype grandson Amulek. Rav Hirsch spoke about the ultimate collapse of the ‘philosophy of conquer and control’.
“Es Zaicher Amulek - It is not Amalek who is so pernicious for the moral future of mankind, but Zaicher Amulek, the glorifying of the memory of Amalek which is the danger. As long as the annals of humanity cover the memory of the heroes of the sword with glory, as long as those that throttle and murder the happiness of mankind are not buried in oblivion, so long will each successive generation look up in worship to these "great ones" of violence and force, and their memory will awaken the desire to emulate these heroes, and acquire equal glory by equal violence and force. Only when the divine laws of morals have become the sole criterion as to the worth of the greatest and smallest of men, and no longer in inverse proportion but in direct proportion to greatness and power do the demands of morality grow, and the greater and more powerful a man is, the less any lapse in the laws of morality is excused, then and then only will the reign of Amalek cease forever in the world. That this is the final goal of G-d's management and direction of the history of the world is expressed here after the first weakening of Amalek, "I will utterly obliterate the keeping up the remembrance of Amalek from as far as the heavens reach."
This is not some peripheral topic in our Torah, as there are no peripherals in the Torah. There are only essentials.
But here more than anywhere else Rav Hirsch explains the very essence of our existence, which has multiple connections to our struggle with the Spirit of Eisav, a.k.a. the Satan, Snake, Angle of Death or Other side.
Here is revealed the hidden message; the core reason of our existence as Jews and as mankind at the same time, where the goal of history is the recognition of diversity in order to unite in complete Oneness. The first step to achieving recognition of the ‘other’ is simply by not killing him or violating him in any other manner. For in the face and existence of the ‘other’, we need to recognize the ‘face’ and existence of the One.
But to get to this stage we must first stop killing each other, justify killing, honor murderers, or remember heroes of violence. We should be ashamed to talk about warriors, soldiers, generals and politicians who caused loss of human life instead of admiring them or giving them even quiet recognition. Even to those who fought so called ‘just wars,’ where some bloody regimes were defeated and further butchery was stopped. For as long as it happened through the means of violence, not much was really achieved in the general struggle of history.
When, almost thirty years ago, I stood in the front of a military commission in the office of higher command, this is almost precisely what I told them.
At the time, refuseniks like me were normally given a sentence of two years' incarceration. And after hours of scaring me with visions of being harmed and beaten in jail, they laughed and ridiculed my naivety in this tough and cruel world.
They thought: Here he is – a big guy, six and a half feet tall, who thinks that using physical force is in reality a defeat and a failure. A giant of a man who says that in case of attack he would rather try to escape and avoid harming his assailant, than engage in struggle and knock him down to the ground.
My statements were radical for them to the extent that they couldn’t stop laughing for a long time. "A big guy big like you…you can probably kill with the strike of your bare hand… and you would rather run away, you idiot?!"
I answered, "Perhaps I can. But I don't want to. And I don’t want to be part of your institution either."
Almost thirty years have passed, and my policy hasn't changed Burich Hashem.
Of course there are Hilchos Roidef – Torah Laws regarding self-defense and the defense of another person in situations of direct endangerment to life, health or even the possessions of a Jew. But that has nothing to do with the cult of Amulek and his sword.
I know that even among our own people, there are those who will label me with the words of Lenin – “pacifists are useful idiots.”
Be'ezras Hashem I would rather remain an ‘idiot’ and pray for them to distance themselves from the dogma of Lenin.
This is what I realized once again on the battlefield of Little Big Horn.